It is not strange for gamers to scream in rage once in a while, in fact, I dare to say that if a game has no capability on making you at least a bit angry, it might not be fun either. Video games from their very beginning provide a challenge for players to overcome in exchange for the satisfaction of victory.
“The greater the challenge, the more juicy and delicious is the nectar of victory”, you might think, as games like the Souls Saga developed by From Software crafted its future by creating big challenges, or Contra was a thing back in the 80’s and 90’s that even made popular the Konami Code that allowed players to start with 30 lives instead of 3.
Creating a good challenge is the objective of every gameplay designer and development team, but it’s mandatory to understand that just making a game hard doesn’t mean you are making it fun, and in fact you might be actually ruining the experience if you are adding that Artificial Difficulty.
Preparing the player for the challenge
A Gameplay and level designer needs to create a challenge big, but also create a good player to overcome the task. Let’s take a look to the Metroid Games for example, in which we start in a Condition of partial freedom, as there are enemies, but they will not really come to attack us so they are more like an obstacle if we want to go to any other place, so players will have to explore the controllers on their own. Samus has limited abilities at this point but players will learn the basics: how to jump, how to shoot, where can they shoot, etc. As we move further in the game, the levels will push the player to improve his/her abilities to overcome a challenge that´s waiting ahead (You can call it “Boss” but the game doesn’t really call by terms, it’s just the big guy around). As the game makes sure that the player is able to control Samus’s abilities so far, it will give the player yet another ability to master as a reward. The game will test the skills of the player as he improves the abilities, changing the conditions in which the tools given can be used.
These tests aren’t long, the game doesn’t need the player to keep doing one thing, which is cool, because players get bored when they do, so the objective of the player is to unlock and master every skill of the avatar (Samus) as the game keeps making sure that the player is able to face the final challenge. This is called “Learning Curve” and I know it’s ABC of Video Gaming but depending on how it is built, the game will keep it fun or tedious, and if you force the curve, you can even make your game unplayable and, for instance, irrelevant.
Prevent the challenge from becoming artificial
The game “Flinthook” developed by Tribute Games has one of the best openings that I have ever seen in pixel art, with beautiful character designs and colors. The game mechanics are fun, especially when you get better on controlling the avatar, I can even say the game is so flexible that you can play in very different conditions with the abilities that are given to you. As good as we just described it, Flinthook becomes the perfect example of how the artificial enhancement of a game difficulty can make a game tedious instead of challenging and fun.
What did they do so wrong?
In Flinthook, the player needs to collect some talismans in order to reach the location of the boss ships, and the number of talismans depend on the boss you are supposed to fight: for the first boss you need three, for the second you need four, and for the third you need five. You need to complete a computer generated level to get a talisman, but every level has the same design, the same music, so it doesn’t take long until you feel that the levels have no personality as they all look the same. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was a condition that ruined the game completely, and is that, if you die, you lose every talisman you have so far, meaning that you have to complete again all the levels completed in order to reach the next boss.
When the difficulty of a game depends on the rules and not on the challenge it’s being presented, the challenge seems artificial and the game is no longer fun, and it is the fun the purpose of the consumer when he/she decides to buy our product.
Cuphead was a hit on the 2017, developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc. as the public was captivated for the tribute to old school animation. The game was so beautifully made in music and aesthetics that were cared in every detail, but not everything was perfect. Yeah, Cuphead was a successful game and people even compare its difficulty to Dark Souls, but truth is that, if you check the critics on Cuphead, most of them will focus on how it looks, because the gameplay is a disaster.
The difficulty of Cuphead depends mostly on the fact that you can only get hit two times and the third one will kill you. This was inspired by Contra, as well as the gameplay itself, but while in Contra everything was set to move through a pattern, in Cuphead we have to avoid enemies that will randomly appear. The game design is focused on raising the chances of getting hit by spamming the screen with random enemies, rather than working on creating a better enemy to fight.
Game elements as well come randomly, and I’m talking about platforms, which in many times will put the player in very awkward positions to attack, and many times it will close any chance to avoid enemy attacks. This becomes especially problematic when we have to battle in scenarios where we depend on floating platforms and there is no floor.
If the game didn’t have its aesthetic value, this weak point would have flashed and be pointed out immediately, and actually was acknowledged by the critics who wrote about the actual gameplay. Again, if the player feels that he/she is losing because of the game’s fault, it is possible that the game will be abandoned soon after.
So keep in mind this points, build a learning curve, don’t be afraid of setting high goals and really big challenges, but remember, do not try to pull players but instead help them to overcome the adventure and you will get yourself a community that will be delighted and hungry for your next masterpiece.